Utah State 2023 season preview: Offseason upheaval leaves Aggies with plenty of questions and possibilities
With more than 30 players leaving the program via the transfer portal, this year’s team is a bit of a mystery
For the third time in four years, the Utah State Aggies are something of a mystery entering the college football season.
To quickly recap:
- In 2020, few knew what to expect from USU thanks to the unprecedented pandemic, though almost no one could have predicted the utter collapse that occurred during the shortened campaign. It was a dismal season that left the Aggies a “really broken team,” reflected quarterback Cooper Legas.
- In 2021, with a new head coach — Blake Anderson — and a roster largely remade via the transfer portal, the Aggies had few expectations placed upon them and soundly outperformed them all en route to the first Mountain West Conference championship in program history.
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Now, entering the 2023 season — fresh off a fairly disappointing 6-7 campaign in 2022 that saw 30-plus players leave Utah State via the transfer portal during the offseason — the Aggies are once again something of an unknown.
That is what happens when you have to remake your team on the fly.
“Nobody knows what they got right now,” Anderson said at Mountain West media days in July. “The people that are ranking (teams) don’t know. We’ve got 39 new scholarship players on our roster. I have no idea what kind of football team we have. Neither does anybody else.”
It isn’t just new players, though. The Aggies also had to replace their offensive (Anthony Tucker) and defensive (Ephraim Banda) coordinators, plus multiple other position coaches.
So, for the third time in four years, Utah State is about as new-look as they come.
As a result, there are plenty of questions regarding the Aggies, on both sides of the ball and in nearly every position group.
On offense alone, Utah State has listed seven “or’s” on the Week 1 depth chart, at running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle and tight end.
During fall camp, the Aggies were without many notable and expected contributors due to various injuries, including offensive tackle Ralph Frias III, multiple tight ends in Josh Sterzer, Parker Buchanan and Isaiah Alonzo, plus a long list of defenders that includes safety Anthony Switzer, defensive end Blaine Spires, defensive tackle Poukesi Vakauta and cornerback Avante Dickerson.
None of those players was or is out indefinitely — many are expected to start Week 1 against Iowa — but all missed time during fall camp, which means many of the questions that could have been answered during the preseason will have to wait until the real games themselves, something Utah State went through in 2022 as well.
Nonetheless, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the program as it currently stands. Every unknown could mean real untapped potential, shades of 2021.
“I feel like we just need time,” Anderson said. “I like where we’re headed. I like what we’re doing. And I like the pieces of the puzzle. As the O-line comes together. I think this is going to change to be a really fun group to to go out and play with every week.”
Anderson isn’t alone in that sentiment.
Said sophomore linebacker Max Alford: “I think when it comes around, we’ll be pretty good. ... Our coach (defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen) gives us more free range to be aggressive towards the ball and make moves at the line. So I think we are slowly coming together.”
How fast can the offense get?
With Anderson now holding down the titles of head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, his influence on the Aggies’ offense is greater than ever and nowhere is that more evident than in the team’s commitment to speed and tempo.
Anderson, Legas and wide receiver Terrell Vaughn each noted recently, separate of one another, that the offense wants to play fast, faster than ever, really.
“That’s been one of our biggest conversations,” Anderson said. “Play faster. And we are starting to. ... If we can’t play fast, we give all the advantages to the defense.”
Limiting turnovers has been another point of emphasis. The Aggies were one of the worst teams in the country a season ago in limiting turnovers, but already there is belief that the team is improved on that front.
“We’ve really emphasized how important it is to protect the ball,” Legas said. “Last year leading the country in turnover ratio is not where you want to be. So he (Anderson) has really got that ingrained in all of our minds that that’s how we win games.”
Per Anderson, Legas in particular has taken steps to limit interceptions, with his inaccurate throws being placed where no one can get them.
“We are protecting the ball,” Anderson said. “That gives us a chance to win.”
So too does a deep and talented pool of skill position players.
Utah State has three running backs who could all see significant time in Robert Briggs, Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison.
“Our running backs are doing well,” running backs coach Rodney Freeman II said in a media release. “... We’ve got a good enough group of guys and we’ve got enough depth that everybody doesn’t have to take a ton of reps, so that allows us to stay healthy. ... I’m pretty satisfied for now.”
Meanwhile, the wide receiver corps is the deepest that Legas has seen in his four years in Logan, thanks to a collection of transfers and junior college additions that include Colby Bowman and Micah Davis.
“It’s fantastic,” Legas said. “I think it’s gonna be hard on the coaches trying to figure out who’s gonna play because this is for sure the deepest the room has ever been. We have so many guys that can make plays. ... Overall depth in the receiver room is best we’ve ever had.”
All things considered, though, Legas may be the key to offensive success for Utah State. The senior quarterback leads a talented room that includes Levi Williams and McCae Hillstead and by all accounts is better than he’s ever been.
“He (Legas) is very competent in his role,” Anderson said. “He is a guy who spends the extra time to learn, one (of the) last guys in our building every day. I think every day he gets better, and he is the guy that they look to. You know he’s prepared to lead, you know he’s prepared the right way and is not afraid of the moment.”
Who emerges as multiposition playmakers on defense?
Cauthen, USU’s new defensive coordinator, has had his work cut out for him upon his arrival in Logan.
The Aggies were hit especially hard on that side of the ball during the offseason, losing upward of eight starters from a group that was one of the best in the country at getting into the backfield.
Utah State has reloaded since then — or tried at least — via the junior college ranks with guys like Cian Slone and Clifton Mosley, as well four-year transfers like Sir Mells.
During the fall camp, it was the defense that performed the best, even with notable absences week to week.
Much of that was due to the remade defensive front which put significant pressure on the Aggies’ quarterbacks.
“I know they got to my quarterback way more than they should,” Anderson said. “I don’t like how many times we were having to scramble for a live so I had to assume they’re doing something right.”
Cauthen’s biggest point of emphasis has been finding playmakers who can play multiple positions, be it along the defensive line or in the secondary.
Some have already showcased a bit of that potential, like Simeon Harris at nickel/safety/corner, or Alford at linebacker, but there is still a way to go.
“I think you’re gonna see some guys, especially in the back end, a lot of guys who are going to step in and take some big roles,” Anderson said. “It is too early to tell exactly who is going to be the one, the two or three (on the depth chart) but we have more bodies to throw at the problem. I think more veteran bodies, twitch bodies and speed bodies.
“Now we just have to figure out, and Joe’s problem is to figure out who is the best 11 and who can play multiple positions. ... Joe’s got a million guys on defense trying to figure it out and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Utah State does return some key returners, such as defensive tackles Vakauta and Hale Motu’apuaka, linebacker MJ Tafisi, cornerback Michael Anyanwu and safety Ike Larson.
Larson in particular continues to elicit excitement after a breakout season a year ago, helping stabilize a safeties room that graduated and/or lost key contributors from last season.
“Ike has done a great job this year of learning the defense, growing, maturing, becoming the leader that he needs to be and trying to get the whole group moving on the same page,” safeties coach Ethan Morriss said in media release. “Another guy in that room is (Anthony) Switzer, who has done a great job in continuing to help Ike mature and showing him how it’s supposed to be done. Having those older guys grab the younger guys and continuing to show them how it’s supposed to be done is really good.”
Is the next great Aggies kicker on the roster?
With Connor Coles no longer on the roster, USU is in need of a new placekicker, and there was an ongoing competition between Elliot Nimrod and juco transfer William Testa during fall camp.
Nimrod was the Aggies’ kickoff specialist in all 13 games in 2022, kicking off 58 times for 3,492 yards (60.2 ypk) with 22 touchbacks.
Testa, meanwhile, scored 232 career points at New Mexico Military Institute in 31 games played, connecting on 34 of 52 on field goal tries and 130 of 133 extra points.
Testa, for Week 1 at least, is the starter and will join standout punter Stephen Kotsanlee as the faces of the Aggies’ special teams, which will also see JUCO transfer Micah Davis take over as the punt returner, while Vaughn will be featured at kick returner.
“It’s exciting to have the guys back we do from last year and it gives us a level of comfort knowing exactly what each of them can do,” special teams coordinator Nick Paremski said in a media release. “They are professional, and they work the right way every day. ... We are going to impact the game in one way or another, positively or negatively. The goal is to be the best in the country and last year we were not the best, so we are still striving to get better and there are things we can get better at.”